When we started making Letters from Baghdad, about the intrepid British explorer, archaeologist and political powerhouse Gertrude Bell (also known as the female Lawrence of Arabia), we knew we didn’t want to do a conventional historical documentary in which archival material takes second stage and the story is told through interviews of experts explaining the context.

In our film, archival footage was going to be the highlight, the key element, the main visual vehicle that would transport the viewer back in time and place.

However, we weren’t sure how much archival footage of the early 1900s we would find. Would using Gertrude Bell’s 1600s letters (voiced by Tilda Swinton) to tell the story from Bell’s point of view, with rare archival footage and her own stunning photographs, turn out to be just wishful thinking? How much footage from the exotic Middle East was preserved over the years?

We both had worked together on an archive heavy film before. Zeva produced and Sabine edited Ahead of Time, a film about centenarian journalist Ruth Gruber. So, the first call we made was to one of our favorite archives, the University of South Carolina, which holds the Fox Movietone Newsreel outtakes. The very first footage they sent us was some of the astonishing we had ever seen. The bustling harbor in Baghdad, with people unloading crates and the round ghuffa boats bobbing on the Tigris river, became our opening scene of the film.

Archival footage of people rowing ghuffa boats on the Tigris river used in the opening scene of Letters From Baghdad. Image courtesy of University of South Carolina/Fox Movietone Newsreel

With this discovery, we were encouraged to move forward, and we hoped to find many more treasures.

The period we were researching coincided with the invention of cinema. The moving images were a new and exciting medium, explored and exploited by people of means, especially by those in the Western Hemisphere. At the time, the fashionable trend was to go out into the world or send photographers on one’s behalf to travel to and capture places and people. They would then bring these images back home so that others could experience it first hand.

Our film covered WWI, the first war that was captured with movie cameras. However, as we reached out to over 25 archives around the world, we realized that although there might have been footage of Gertrude Bell at some point, its survival was questionable.

Judy Aley, our archival producer, had already established relationships with many international archives. She helped us come up with keywords for our initial search. This early part of our research focused on the time and places we were interested in. It would lead us to archives in countries who had connections to the places that Gertrude Bell’s story centered around, mainly UK and France.

Very soon we discovered that not all archives were as well organized as we hoped; occasionally, the footage came back labeled Iraq but was instead Afghanistan, Iran or another Middle Eastern country. Fortunately, we both had traveled at different times in the various countries we were now revisiting on film, so we knew whether or not the footage was mislabeled. Gertrude Bell’s photographsover 7000 photos held at the Gertrude Bell Archive at Newcastle University—helped us greatly in figuring out the miscellaneous unidentified footage.

The footage started coming in from all around the world and soon we were inundated with hundreds of clips. Thankfully, Judy had set us up at the very beginning with a database that could be searched in many different ways. We were able to comment on the clips and prioritize our favorite footage with careful notes.  

Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Filemaker notes on archival footage used in Letters From Baghdad. Image courtesy of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

This was crucial for the editing process, as it let us track back that special shot that one of us may have seen two years earlier when we first viewed the material.

To present these images in the best way possible, we needed the original negatives scanned so that the footage would look as alive as it was when it was first shot. This was going to be a very costly process, but we felt it was necessary in bringing out the beauty of the archival footage. We decided to launch a Kickstarter Campaign in order to finance specifically this part of the work—asking the archives to go into their vaults and digitizing the original 35mm negatives. It became our mission to preserve these clips, some of them never digitized before, and make them available for other filmmakers to use in the future.

Most archives were thrilled with our request and happy to help search for the negatives. However, there were also others that didn’t want to spend the time and instead handed us the responsibility to search for the footage. One of these archives stored their footage at the Library of Congress. Our executive producers, Elizabeth Chandler, volunteered and ended up in a fully padded jumpsuit at close to subzero temperatures in the vault of the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Video Conservation Center. She manually scrolled through original nitrate-encrusted negative rolls for a particular clip that we were sure we really needed.

Nitrate-encrusted negative rolls obtained by the crew of Letters From Baghdad at the Library of Congress. Photograph courtesy of Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum

You can imagine the joy when she actually turned up with what we had hoped would be in that crusty, dusty negative reel. It was these and other challenges with archival footage that made our lives difficult yet exciting at the same time.

At a certain point, we hit a wall, and our keyword search didn’t turn up anything else. We had exhausted that avenue. That was the moment where, with the help of Judy, we became creative in our hunt. We started to branch out as we realized that we should look not only in the archives of countries that had a colonial presence in the Middle East, but also in some of the archives that were well-known for their collection of unusual materials.

A wonderful collaboration happened with the Eye Museum in the Netherlands. The Dutch didn’t have a colonial presence in the Middle East; however, by pure chance, we landed on one of their curiosities called Bits and Pieces. The archivist, Elif Rongen remembered seeing a few shots of camels in what looked like might be Persia. She sent us a whole selection, which in turn led us to a burning volcano that included wonderful close-ups of a raging fire tinted a beautiful red, a roaring, multicolored waterfall and a hand tinted shot of a lonely wanderer—just all the potential elements that would find their way into our story. These assembled outtakes, randomly put together, presented us with a huge variety of material.

Archival footage used in a scene from Letters From Baghdad. Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum

The work with the archivists and pulling them into the filmmaking process was key. It gave them a chance to use their expertise and creativity, and we connected in our shared passion for archival footage in all of its beauty and decay.

At this point, we were looking to visualize some of the more intimate and emotional moments in Gertrude Bell’s story and had to start thinking out of the box. With the archivists on our side, we were often given larger reels and more footage than we requested. All of it was carefully logged, and by the time we were in the editing room, we could easily find that single bird on a wire or the reeds in the wind. These visuals became as important in the storytelling process as the rare street footage of Damascus or the docks in Basrah.

Of course, we always hoped that some footage might actually be found in Iraq itself. Maybe a descendent of one of Bell’s contemporaries had some old reels in his or her attic. We read in one of Bell’s letters that she hired a cameraman to film King Feisal’s cotton farm. She felt it would be a great way to promote the new king.

In a string of coincidences, we heard about an Iraqi film archive that had become the victim of the chaos after the 2003 American invasion. The archive was split up and its reels, dispersed. We were led to the Iraqi Independent Film Center (IIFC), where some of the reels were kept in a room that was exposed to the elements. They filmmakers were doing their best, without funding and with a precarious living situation, to keep the film reels safe. The majority of the reels were positives from Saddam Hussein’s personal collection, films from the 1980s that he either commissioned or collected. But there was also talk of some cans that contained original negatives from the ‘20s.

Archival footage used in a scene from Letters From Baghdad. Image courtesy of Lobster Films

We were ecstatic and launched into a mission trying to save the Iraqi film archive. With the help of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the Cinetecca di Bologna and the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), we came up with a road map that was presented to the Ministry of Culture. We waited, and after long bureaucratic debates, we got the green light to move forward with our plan. But then the government changed and new people took the place of our fellow activists. We were back to square one. We have not given up to help get this archive back from the rubble, but it will have to wait for a time when Iraq itself is stable again. At this stage, we knew that the reels were moved to a safer location in the Ministry of Culture.

By the end of our research, we had accumulated over 800 clips from archives all over the world. A rewarding acknowledgement of our efforts with archival footage was that we recently won the Focal International award for “Best Use of Archival Footage in History Feature.” It was a five-year challenge, in which we got to collaborate with many wonderful archivists and developed lasting relationships with archives that would serve us in the future on our next voyage into film history. MM